18 September 2019

A Literary Vampire Alights upon an Impoverished Poet; or, A Newer New Grub Street in Manhattan

The Silver Poppy
Arthur Stringer
New York: Appleton, 1903
291 pages

Educated Englishman John Hartley has seen much sadness in his young life. Four or five years ago, his father, Sir Harry Hartley, was killed in the Dunstable Hunt. John next suffered through the illness and death of a fiancée, Connie Meredith, to whom he had dedicated his debut volume of verse. These tragedies rendered John directionless until celebrated portrait painter Repellier suggests that he set sail for a new life in New York.

The city isn't quite as welcoming as was hoped. Unable to sell his literary efforts, and short of funds, John takes a job in the grimy offices of the United News Bureau, where he's reduced to toiling amongst hacks and exhausted, alcoholic has-beens. And yet, John holds no ill will. Standing on the rooftop of Repellier's studio, as one of the painter's Bohemian parties draws to a close, John chances to meet Kentucky girl Cordelia Vaughan. He doesn't recognize her, though he should; Cordelia is the author of The Silver Poppy, a literary debut that is being touted not only as the novel of the season novel, but a novel for all time. A blonde beauty with a penchant for yellow and gold dresses, blouses and skirts, pictures of Cordelia are everywhere. The celebrated author expresses interest in John's writing, does a kindness in offering an exclusive interview, and two become fast friends.

Not long into their relationship, Cordelia shares her frustration in writing a second novel, The Unwise Virgins. The poet offers to read the manuscript, and finds it a failure. The Unwise Virgins has "none of the power and movement of The Silver Poppy, none of those whimsical tendernesses and quaint touches of humor and pathos that had half muffled the razor edge of her earlier satiric touch." John had never found Cordelia to have a great sense of humour, and so wonders if "she had not drained off, as it were, her vanished reservoirs of mirth; if her mental blitheness had not been lost with the too labored advent of her firstborn."

The poet is gentle in suggesting changes that might improve the novel, but the authoress has had enough of it. Her mood improves when he offers to make the changes himself. In return, the frustrated novelist suggests they share the royalties. When John refuses the offer, she insists that he send her some of his short stories. Though they've been rejected by numerous magazines, Cordelia rightly believes that her support will help in getting them published. John's stories sell, which makes it easier to leave the United News Bureau. Cordelia next offers John an apartment she'd intended for her father (he was reluctant to leave his old Kentucky home) and the poet ramps up his work on improving The Unwise Virgins.

Months pass, during which Repellier finally finds time to read The Silver Poppy. He finds it identical to a work in progress read to him by a friend not three earlier. This friend, one of "the brightest and most scholarly editorial writers on all Park Row," had been sickly. He'd sought a cure in fresh air of the hills of Kentucky, where he'd subsequently died. Repellier threatens to share his knowledge of the true author of The Silver Poppy unless Cordelia breaks things off with John.

Repellier presumes. Up to this point, Cordelia and John have been not much more than friends. True, two of their meetings featured kissing and petting, but they ended quickly and were of the oh-dear-I don't-know-what-got-into-me kind. But, after Repellier's threat, when they're next alone:
The two white arms came together and folded over him and drew him in like wings.
     Time and the world were nothing to her then; time and the world were shut out from him. It was the lingering, long-delayed capitulation of the more impetuous, profounder love she had held back from him, of the finer and softer self she had all but famished in the citadel of her grim aspirations. She no longer allured him, or cared to allure him; she had nothing to seek of him thereafter; she had only the ruins of her broken life to give him.
     And he, too — he felt those first thin needles of bliss that crept and projected themselves over the quiet waters of friendship, and he knew that a power not himself was transforming those waters of change and unrest and ebb and flow into the impenetrable solidity of love itself.
For "capitulation" read "copulation."

I've done a disservice in quoting this particular passage, though it is an example of the work's greatest flaw. A first novel, The Silver Poppy – Stringer's, not Cordelia's – so often falls victim to verbosity, but not so often that it ruins a really good story. The worst aspects of the writing life, as it was at the dawn of the last century, are exposed. The United News Bureau seeks funds from eminent men looking to guarantee a favourable obituary, and feeds off material outside of copyright:
An English novel or any less substantial publication which came to it unprotected by the arm of the law was pounced on at once, rapaciously and gleefully. It was renamed, abridged or expanded as the case might require, and in less time than it took the original author to indite his first chapter, it was on the market as a new and thrilling serial, “secured by special arrangement.”
Cordelia's novel is bought by Broadway. Though two playwrights are brought in to adapt it for the stage, only her name is credited. Sent out on lecture tour, Cordelia reads words written by a speechwriter hired by her publisher. She encourages John to submit one of his poems, 'The Need of War,' to a newspaper that is offering a great deal of money for her thoughts on armed conflict:
“But it’s not what newspapers print or care to print.”
     “It’s a beautiful thing,” she cried. “They’d jump at it.” And then she added, as an afterthought, “ If it had been written by any one with a name.”
     “That’s just it,” he explained. “ The offer hasn’t been made to me, you see.”
     “Yes, I know,” she began. “And that’s why I hesitated about suggesting the thing.”
     He seemed to be weighing the matter, and she waited for him to speak.
     “Of course it’s awfully good of you to extend the offer to me at the last moment, and all that sort of thing. But I know well enough this paper would never think of offering me any such sum for the lines.”
     She looked at him steadily.
     “They would if it appeared over my name.”
     “But I couldn’t ask you to do that—and for a mere matter of money,” he cried.
     “I would gladly, for you.”
     “But it would scarcely be fair, either to you or to me.”
     She almost hated him, she felt, when he stood so proudly behind that old-time integrity of character of his. Even as she argued, though, she secretly hoped against hope that he would hold out, that he would defeat her where she stood. Then remembering again more than one scene of inward humiliation over what he seemed to have accepted as her womanly proneness to tangle the devious skeins of ethics and expediency, a touch of the tyrant came to her once more.
     “I want you to have this money,” she pleaded. “It’s only right that you should."
Cordelia is alive! A country girl caught up in literary New York, she quickly learns to navigate, becoming all too familiar with the fabrication, hypocrisy, and deceit of its publishing houses.

Arthur Stringer: Son of the North
Victor Lauriston
Troronto: Ryerson, 1941

In his very short biography of the author, friend Victor Lauriston writes: "Newspaper identification of a prominent woman writer of that period with Stringer's 'Cordelia Vaughan' precipitated a controversy, and the book startled the author by going through five editions."

The Kentucky New Era
19 September 1903 
My own investigation confirms the validity of Lauriston's statement. Newspapers did indeed liken the character to a famous authoress of the day; frustratingly, I've yet to find one that names the lady in question. And so I put it to you, who is Cordelia Vaughhan?

Trivia I: The word "plagiarism" does not feature in the novel.

Trivia II: Five years after publication, Stringer accused George Sylvester Viereck, Edgar Allan Woolf of plagiarizing The Silver Poppy in their play The Vampire. The latter is based on Viereck's 1907 novel The House of Vampire, in which American Reginald Clarke feeds off the literary and artistic work of others.

The New York Times
31 January 1909

The working title of The  Silver Poppy was "The Yellow Vampire." The word "vampire" exists six times in the text, used by Repellier in a too subtle tale to warn John about Cordelia.

I've found no evidence that Viereck and Woolf followed through on their threat.

Object: A very attractive hardcover, typical of its time, except that it features no illustrations. The book's final six pages are given over to adverts for titles by Anna McClure Sholl, Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, Arthur Stirling, Julien Gordon, Frank T. Bullen, J Aubrey Tyson, Elisa Armstrong Bengough, Mrs Burton Harrison, and Mrs Poultney Bigelow.

I didn't make up one of those names.

The image at the top of this post does not do justice. Those poppies really are silver! I purchased my copy, a first edition, four years ago from Attic Books, not one kilometre from the author's childhood home. Price: $10.

Access: The Silver Copy is held by the Chatham-Kent Public Library, the London Public Library, and twenty-one of our academic libraries. The novel may have had five printings, but only three copies are listed for sale online. As of this writing, at US$18, the cheapest is an Appleton first. I'm intrigued by the offer of a later A.L. Burt cheapo because it features a fontispiece. A Canadian edition as published in 1903 by William Briggs. A UK edition was published in 1904 by Methuen.

The print on demand vultures are all over this novel. My favourite cover is this one, presumably put together after misreading the title:

No dogs feature in the book

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13 September 2019

Constance Beresford-Howe Memorial Plaque

Five weeks from today, Montreal's Writers' Chapel will be celebrating the life and work of Constance Beresford-Howe. The event will end with the unveiling of a plaque in her honour. A Montrealer, Beresford-Howe's earliest writing was published as a McGill  student in the pages  of the Daily and the Forge.

Old McGill 1945

During her studies, she was awarded a Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship, which resulted in the publication of her first novel, The Unreasoning Heart (1946). Nine novels followed, the most celebrated being The Book of Eve (1973), the first in her Voices of Eve trilogy. Beresford-Howe's last novel, A Serious Widow, was published in 1991.

This is a free event and will be followed by a wine and cheese reception.

The Writers' Chapel
St Jax Montréal
1439 St Catherine Street West (Bishops Street entrance)
Friday, October 11th at 6:00 pm

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03 September 2019

Where to Begin with Margaret Millar: A Top Ten

I got off to a bad start with Margaret Millar. Of the twenty-six books published during her lifetime, the first I read was Fire Will Freeze, sent me by a friend who was working for Harold Ober Associates, Millar's literary agents. This was back in the 'eighties, when her novels – some anyway – were being reissued in inelegant editions by International Polygonics. I didn't think much of Fire Will Freeze, in part because I couldn't accept its setting. The dust jacket to the 1944 first edition describes it as a "run-down Quebec chateau," but I knew better. Fire Will Freeze takes place the province's ski country, and there are no chateaus in the Laurentians.

The cover of the International Polygonics edition, depicting a scene and character not found in the novel, is no better.

Twenty-four years passed before I gave Margaret Millar a second chance. I chose a pristine first edition of An Air That Kills I'd found buried in a bin at a Toronto Goodwill. It won me over. I've been pushing Millar ever since. Can you blame me? Margaret Millar was easily one the most talented Canadian writers of the last century, and yet she's almost entirely ignored in this country.

Because I go on so, a friend has asked that I do with Millar what I had done with Grant Allen:
Starting In On Grant Allen: A Top Ten
Though I've read only thirteen Margaret Millar books – half of her total output – I'm happy to advise. What follows, in order of preference, are my ten favourite Millar novels. Titles with links point to blog posts. Titles without links are reviewed in The Dusty Bookcase, the book born of this blog. It's sold by the very finest booksellers.

An Air That Kills (1957)

Two favourite topics, infidelity and murder feature in many Millar novels, though the two aren't always linked. Both come into play here. That An Air That Kills is set in Toronto and Ontario's cottage country, both of which I know all too well, may have elevated it a notch or two in my estimation. As in so many of her novels, recognition that a crime has taken place comes quite late.
The Fiend (1964)

Anthony Boucher described The Fiend as something quite extraordinary. If anything, this is an understatement. Here is a novel about a registered sex offender, whom the author dares us to view with sympathy. He is loved by a woman who is unloved, and we – this reader anyway – come to hope that she gets her man.

Vanish in an Instant (1952)

Set in the fictional town of Arbana (read: Ann Arbor, Michigan). A wealthy, married playboy has been stabbed to death, and an equally wealthy married woman is fingered for the crime. The novel is spoiled somewhat by the intrusion of a love story, but that comes in late and passes soon enough.

Wall of Eyes (1943)

The once well-to-do, dysfunctional Heaths are at the centre of this, Margaret Millar's first Toronto murder mystery. Because it is so entangled in family, an argument may be made that it is her greatest domestic drama. The opening, in which a young woman with sight leads a seeing eye dog through city streets cannot be forgotten.
The Iron Gates (1945)

The novel that paid for Margaret and Kenneth Millar's Santa Barbara home. The Iron Gates was adapted for what was meant to be – but wasn't to be – a Bette Davis film. A psychological thriller (see cover) set in Toronto, at one point the murderer imagines a talking sugar bowl. Perfect for David Cronenberg, right?

Do Evil in Return (1950)

After The Fiend, this is Millar's boldest novel. Bad things happen, but the worst occur after protagonist Dr Charlotte Keating turns away a woman seeking an abortion. I liked this novel when I read it, and was complimentary, but was not complimentary enough. I may be making the same mistake in placing it sixth.

Wives and Lovers (1954)

This is the second of Millar's non-mysteries, which is not to say that there isn't mystery. The first concerns dentist Gordon Foster and his niece's friend. Why is he uncomfortable when her name is mentioned? It's a novel in which one expects a murder, but it never happens.

Beast in View (1955)

The short work for which Millar won the 1956 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Adapted to the small screen in a 1964 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Do not watch the 1986 version, which is Beast in View in name only. Another of the author's psychological novels, I'd like to see Cronenberg give this one a go, too.

Rose's Last Summer (1952)

The only other Millar novel adapted and broadcast on the small screen, this one, appropriately, concerns a faded film star named Rose French. Reduced to living in cramped room, surrounded by her memorabilia, she surprises her landlady by taking a housekeeping job in San Francisco. The next day, her death makes the papers.

The Listening Walls (1959)

Wilma Wyatt is at the tail end of a very bad year in which she suffered  the loss of her parents (plane crash) and husband (divorce), so the idea of a girls' getaway with old friend appealed. One of the pair ends up dead after a fall from their hotel room balcony, and then the other goes missing.

Of the other three that didn't make the cut, Experiment in Springtime is the only one I can recommend. Another non-mysteries, anyone at all interested in the depiction of mental illness in fiction will find it essential reading. The Invisible Worm, Millar's debut, also failed to make the cut, as did Fire Will Freeze – and you know how I feel about Fire Will Freeze.

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01 September 2019

'September Winds' by A.M. Stephen

A poem for the month from The Golden Treasury of Canadian Verse, edited by A.M. Stephens, published in 1928 by J.M. Dent & Sons. This particular verse is by Mr Stephens himself. The illustration is by Ernest Wallcousins.
                                          O Mad wind,
                                          Glad wind,
                           That sways the purple plumes
                                Of nodding asters, row on row,
                                In late September's afterglow,
                           My heart has heard you call! 
                                         O Mad wind,
                                         Glad wind,
                           My feet would roam with you
                                The wildered paths of tangled fern
                                Where bright the scarlet berries burn
                           And falling leaves are brown. 
                                         O Mad wind,
                                         Glad wind,
                           Come, bugle up the sun
                                 That leaves a radiance rare and pale,
                                 In golden-rod along the trail,
                           Upon the misted hills. 
                                        O Mad wind,
                                        Glad wind,
                           The fire is of your kin
                                 That flames in crimson splendour where
                                 Fleet Autumn glides with unbound hair
                           Along your woodland ways. 
                                        O Mad wind,
                                        Glad wind,
                           She is your breath in form.
                                 The music of her light steps beat
                                 Triumphal marches low and sweet
                           Of Life fulfilled by Love.


26 August 2019

Domestic Suspense in Small Town Ontario

M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty
Frances Shelley Wees
NewYork: Doubleday, 1954
222 pages

M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty begins after a moment of high drama. A woman has been found not guilty of murdering her husband. The jury foreman sweats and sits as the presiding judge delivers his concluding remarks. The Toronto court room then empties in an orderly fashion.

No one is satisfied.

Members of the public are frustrated by the lack of resolution. Mrs Graham, mother of the murdered man, seethes – not for want of justice, but because a guilty verdict would've handed over her son's fortune. Helen, the accused, is unhappy that her name was not cleared. She thinks of her young son, Jamie, and worries how he'll get on in the world when some maintain that his mother murdered his father.

With the aid of her late husband's fortune – half a million dollars! – Helen sets out to clear her name. A book of forged cheques leads to a nicely furnished flat and diaphanous red negligee. There's no shock in this – Helen knew her husband was a cad – the value of the discovery comes in its connection to the town of Mapleton, a growing bedroom community not far from Toronto. There's a woman there, a curvaceous woman, with whom her husband had been carrying on.

Helen is so dedicated in her pursuit that she purchases and moves into a newly-built bungalow that borders the property of the curvaceous woman and her family. The young widow believes she's alone in her investigation, but she is wrong. Jonathan Merrill, "psychological consultant to the Toronto police," has long been on the case. His sister Jane spent several fruitless months snooping as Mrs Graham's maid, and has now found employ in Helen's new home. Constable Harry Lake, Merrill's right hand man, passes himself off as a gardener, and manages to get work tending to neighbourhood lawns.

As Helen, Jonathan, Jane, and Harry watch for someone to slip up, next-door neighbour Burke Patterson, a commercial artist, begins showing an interest in the widow. He's attractive enough, and seems a nice fellow, but why did he paint all those portraits of the curvaceous woman?

Wees's depiction of a post-war bedroom community, complete with country club, catty wives, bland business-minded husbands, and free-flowing liquor, forms much of the novel's appeal. And then there's the hanging suggestion that Helen's husband may not have been  murdered at all, but simply miscalculated the dosage of his sleep medication. Might adultery be the only crime?

With the novels of Margaret Millar and Wees's own The Keys of My Prison, it is one of the finest examples of Canadian domestic suspense.

Trivia: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty first appeared in a condensed version as I Am Not Guilty (Ladies' Home Journal, February 1954). I much prefer the latter title. How 'bout you?

More trivia: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty is the first novel to feature Jonathan Merrill, Jane Merrill, and Constable Harry Lake. The trio next appear in This Necessary Murder (1957). The model for Merrill was Toronto publicist and magazine writer James A. Cowan.

Object: A cheaply produced hardcover consisting of white boards and cheap paper, my horribly damaged copy is a book club edition. It was purchased last May for sixty cents (with a further $7.80 for shipping and handling). The jacket design is by Fred McCarroll. I wonder why "A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE" is so downplayed.

Access: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty was first published by in 1954 by Doubleday. Used copies aren't plentiful online, but they are cheap. At US$20, the most expensive, a Very Good copy of the first edition, is the one to buy.

It also appeared – supposedly in full, though I'm not convinced – in Northern Lights, a 1960 Doubleday Book Club anthology selected by George E. Nelson. Mazo de la Roche wrote the introduction!

The last M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty saw print was in 1967 as a Pyramid Gothic title. It is not a gothic novel. The cover depicts Helen much as she's described in the novel. But is that really Toronto? Sure as hell isn't Mapleton. And who's that in the background? The judge?

There has been just one translation, the German Mylord, ich bin nicht schuldig. First published in 1960, I see at least two editions:

Copies of M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty are held by Library and Archives Canada, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and seven of our university libraries. Frances Shelley Wees lived the better part of her adult life in Stouffville, Ontario, so how is it that the Whitchurch-Stouffville Public Library doesn't have a single one of her books?

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19 August 2019

Bach to the Future, Part III: The Squeaking Wheel

Final words on A Voice is Calling and its author.
About eight years ago, I posted a piece on The Squeaking Wheel, an ugly, bigoted screed that was self-published in 1966 under the pseudonym "John Mercer." All I knew of its authorship came from the book itself, which claimed "John Mercer" to be two men, both English-speaking Montrealers, who worked in the fields of advertising and medicine.

That's not much to go on.

"Even today their identities are a mystery," I wrote in my review. I doubt anyone was on the case – and wasn't myself – so, it was unhappy coincidence that in researching A Voice is Calling I came upon the obituary of its author (Montreal Gazette, 5 December 2001). It includes this sentence:
As an author he wrote A Voice is Calling, published in 1945; Trespass Against None, published in 1950; Le Dernier Voyage with Martine Hebert-Duguay, published in 1951; The Squeaking Wheel as John Mercer, published in 1965; Against the Tide, published in 1989; and Focus and Middle Distance, two autobiographical novels published recently.
And so, the identity of one of the two men behind The Squeaking Wheel is revealed. I wouldn't have guessed it from reading A Voice is Calling. The Squeaking Wheel is an anti-francophone rant, yet the hero of A Voice is Calling, Andre Brousseau, is a sympathetic and talented French Canadian. The novel's few anglophones are pleasant and encouraging. Given that every other character is a francophone, I don't think anything can be read into the fact that their number includes the three villains.

Eric Cecil Morris was the ad man behind The Squeaking Wheel – he was working for Cockfield-Brown at the time – but who was the medical man?

As before, I can't be bothered.

My original post on The Squeaking Wheel was deleted and rewritten for publication in The Dusty  Bookcase. Because I feel so strongly about the "John Mercer" book, I'm reposting my review as it first appeared on this blog on 27 December 2011:

The Squeaking Wheel;
     Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the French
and Love the Bomb
John Mercer [Eric Cecil Morris]
n.p.: Rubicon, 1966

Let's get rid of this so as to not track it into the New Year.

I came upon The Squeaking Wheel in an Ontario thrift shop; its bold, if inept declaration—"4TH. [sic] PRINTING OF THE BEST-SELLING BOOK ALL CANADA'S TALKING ABOUT!"—did attract.

I don't remember talk of this book; but then I was only just learning to speak when The Squeaking Wheel was first published. Sure looks like it was popular. The copyright page records four printings in three months! Two in February 1966 alone! In the foreword, author John Mercer tells us that the first two printings amounted to "many thousands" of copies. So why is this the only one I've ever seen? And why was there no fifth printing?

I'd ask John Mercer, but he's a fabrication, a pseudonym for two men to hide behind. "English-speaking Montrealers who have a curious desire not to be blown sky-high to a Protestant Heaven by a few well-placed sticks of dynamite," they reveal nothing more about themselves than that they work in the fields of advertising and medicine. Even today their identities are a mystery.

More furious than funny, those familiar with Rebel Media comment pages will recognize the John Mercer style. Irrational anger and uncontrolled ranting accompany fantastical statistics presented without citation. Quotations, even those pitching the book, lack attribution. It's all here, including that old saw about Quebecers being horrible drivers: “It has often been said by opponents of French-Canada that one way to solve the problem of Quebec is to give every inhabitant a car and turn all the traffic lights green for one day.”

Take care now. Those words come not from the authors, but the "opponents of French-Canada." Or so the John Mercer men would have you believe. The reader will soon recognize that they too are opponents.

The Quiet Revolution is five years old, the Bi and Bi Commission is just beginning, and already the authors, who "have lived all their adult lives in Quebec," are fed up. Their message is clear: "Quebec is a conquered country and its people are a conquered people"... and somewhat inferior:
We are a little tired of hearing about biculturalism and French-Canadian culture. We don’t quite agree with a noted politician who recently said the only thing French-Canadian culture has produced is strip-teaser Lily St. Cyr and hockey-player “Rocket” Richard.
Again, don't you be pinning this on John Mercer. That stuff about the stripper and the hockey player comes from some politician. Who? Who knows. The men behind the pseudonym are only repeating what they've heard, and they don't quite agree.

Not quite.

The Squeaking Wheel was never talked about by "everyone in Canada"; not even Montreal's English- and French-language presses gave it much attention. Serious discussion of the book is limited to a few sentences in journalist Solange Chaput-Rolland's Reflections (1968):
The pens of these English-speaking compatriots are certainly not very brave. Of course it is true that, when one describes unpleasant reality, one receives in return unpleasant insult. But liberty of speech demands the dignity and courage of that speech. And those who hurl invective at their compatriots, while keeping themselves well hidden, are not really respectable citizens.
Though I can’t top that, I’ll add that I don't think the cowards hiding behind the pseudonym were Montrealers. Real Montrealers know it's Lili, not "Lily"; and they know she was not French-Canadian, but American.

I'll add that we Canadians know not to hyphenate "hockey player."

There, sweet Virginia, I've scraped the shit right off my shoe.

Lili St. Cyr [née Willis Marie Van Schaack]
1918  - 1999
Maurice "Rocket"  Richard
1921 - 2000

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